Back when political discourse still got me hot, my sex friend Grant would launch into passionate speeches about Bill Hicks. It was like the act of coming opened the levies of his liberal-leaning subconscious. He was a pioneer of truth in a world built on obfuscation and subterfuge, he would gasp. Why do the good ones, the bold ones, the ones who light the way always die young? I soaked up everything he said like red wine infusing the fibres of a beige rug. I wanted to tell him my truth: that my shadow wanted to devour me whole. But a subject like that doesn’t usually come up within the organic flow of conversation.
My shadow turned into gnashing teeth when he last invited himself over. He’d worked a double so I was putting in work on top, my back arched for that good rub. He was always the right amount of clammy—I could sweat-gel mini-Mohicans with his chest hair but I didn’t get that prickly sweat-burn around my thighs. Above us, my shadow cast by the bedside lamp coalesced like when strong winds make shapes out of cotton-ball clouds. It eventually settled on what looked like a face with horns, then a jaw and a set of teeth chomping down. Alarming as this was, I let him finish so he’d tell me more about Hick’s theories on psychedelic drugs. When he was done, so was the shadow beast. It was there then it wasn’t.
It came for me every time Grant collected on his pleading booty texts, disappearing right as he fell out of me.
I wandered if I was little more than a meal to it: juicy skin and delicious marrow to suck from my bones so they might be used for toothpicks. I couldn’t figure why it had chosen me. I recycled my glass jars and plastic bottles and was generally nice to children who didn’t run over my open-toed shoes with skateboards. I wasn’t the most compassionate person, but whatever evil it saw in me had to be a mistake.
“Shadow…beasts…” the used book store clerk repeated with an upwards inflection. “Is that like a monster movie adaptation or…” he asked, side-eying me from the computer screen.
I exhausted every page of internet search results. This seemed to be a singular event, which made me even more wary that I was hallucinating like when I used to do mushrooms behind the bleachers on the football field.
I changed the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector, unblinking in its defiance. The building super firmly insisted there was no asbestos circulating through the air vents.
This time I made the booty call, texting Grant a picture of my bare ass and the caption Wish you were here? I knew the ass pic would be a Pied Piper, so after giving myself a makeshift Brazilian with a circle of make-up mirrors and a good amount of wine, I set the head of the bedside lamp to project both our shadows against the opposite wall. I wanted to get a good look at The Beast. I was ready to find out if my mind was crumbling, and curious to see if I could trust Grant enough to handle it.
I could feel him start to lick the alphabet, a learned, paint-by-numbers technique that sort of annoyed me as I’d prefer he worked off rhythm and instinct. But I usually forgave him around the lowercase I mark – a long, slow, deliberate vertical stroke then a hard dot with the tip of his tongue.
“Gimme some Billy,” I said.
He stopped and surfaced slow like an ice-breaking submarine. “We are the imagination of ourselves,” he whispered.
I raised my head enough to peer over his glistening shoulders. The regular shadows of two consenting adults decorated the wall.
“I’ve heard that one,” I told him.
“Life is just a ride.”
“No greatest hits—gimme the B-sides.”
“We all pay for life with death, so everything in between should be free.”
I liked the socialist slant on that one. Everything for all. Mine is yours is mine. He re-joined the alphabet at T when I’d been expecting the standard order. He stuck with it but I squirmed—I wanted my I as a continuation of H. In my periphery, I thought I saw my shadow start to swarm.
“We are a virus with shoes…and I think I’m in love with you,” he said. He didn’t even have the kindness to reach the circular bliss of Q before forever destroying our no strings pact.
The black amassed quick and bit down hard before either of us felt it closing in.
I craned my neck to see Grant’s head vanish with a woomph, like a gust of wind squeezing through a window, ajar. No blood splatter, no crushing bones or snapping sinew. The black tattooed the rest of him: torso, limbs, fingernails. Molecule by molecule, his soul to keep. I tried to kick myself away, but I was overcome by an instinctual glow of control and relief, as if all pain and worry had evaporated in a cloud of morphine.
He fully succumbed to the creeping dark, leaving nothing behind but displaced air and sheets soaked with sex sweat. No scorched linen, no residue, no sulphuric hell-stench. I was flooded by a warmth, a sweet whiskey burn, an instant accumulation of new knowledge, tinged with sorrow and a fear that had me turn out the light. But even when swallowed by darkness, my shadow never left my side. I heave-sobbed over a life extinguished, over grasping that I was still alive, over feeling alive, renewed, soiled yet cleansed.
I leapt to the floor and felt around for my clothes, The Beast nudging my thoughts toward leaving before someone came looking for Grant. I found his jeans, pulled a Zippo from the pocket and lit the wick. I held the lighter up ignited, ran it under my fingertips until they began to char and blister.